I knew I needed to make sure that I didn’t scrimp on my sleep on this trip, but despite being on the road for over 16 hours, and riding almost 200 miles the day before, I was wide awake when I arrived at my hotel room. I scattered my belongings around the room, thought about my day, did a Facebook live, had a high-calorie meal (Expedition Foods Fish pie – easy to eat, but way too sweet), then settled into a bath to ease any aches and pains – although I felt remarkably good. I always look forward to a soak in a bath after a bike ride. It’s a bit of a ritual for me. The bath in the Premier Inn was just deep enough for full body submersion, and I struggled to not fall asleep in the warm water. It was close to 1am before I went to bed, but my alarm was set for 5:30 am to give me time to eat breakfast and be on the road for 6:30. I think in reality I slept for around 4 hours. Enough for now, but I knew it would catch up on me in a day or two.
The first challenge of the day was going to be negotiating Avonmouth docks early on a Monday morning. I awoke to grey skies, and drizzle in the air. But it was warm, so I popped on my Gore-Tex Shake dry and set off.
After a bit of searching, I found the entrance to the cycle path that crosses the River Avon, which is attached to the M5 motorway bridge. Thankfully I had used this trail once before, and so I had a rough idea what I was looking for. Despite mapping it out carefully, it was pretty well hidden from the road and previously I had only done it in the other direction. The entrance to the path takes you on a narrow path behind industrial buildings and is signposted to lots of places except the bridge. Eventually I asked a passer by in an attempt to not make any mistakes, and found my way. Exiting it on the north side of the river however it was very easy to find my way to the docks road. For a more relaxed rider, there are alternatives to this option, but I was in a hurry and thankfully, although the road on this damp Monday morning was very busy with HGV’s, there was a very wide shared path alongside, which I was only too happy to use. I briefly came across the other LEJOG’er rider who we had seen leaving Lands End the day before, and we chatted for a few minutes, before he dashed off, more sure of his route than I was. There are cycle paths that head to the Severn Bridge, but these were all closed – really closed, which meant that I had a very busy dual carriageway to negotiate, on a horrible morning, to get to the bridge.
The cycle path on the north of the bridge that I was used to riding was also closed, and so I picked up the path on the south. I’ve never used this path before, but to me it felt nicer as the approach was more rural in nature. I was a little later than planned, but there was a solitary figure waiting for me so that he could ride over to Chepstow with me. He introduced himself as Steve, saying he wouldn’t ride too far with me as he didn’t want to hold me up. We chatted all the way over the bridge talking about cycle touring among other things, and he bade me farewell as we reached Chepstow.
Once in Wales I knew the route undulations would start again, but I would have a fairly easy time riding through the Wye Valley. Del was waiting for me in the van at Chepstow race course, where I quickly gulped some tea, and set off towards Monmouth. I adore riding through the Wye Valley, and it’s always been a great start to some Audax rides that I have done that start in Chepstow. Although there’s rise and fall to the road, the feeling is that it’s a fast road to cycle. There isn’t too much traffic during the week, or early in the day and it’s certainly a scenic route. Passing the ruins of Tintern Abbey is always spectacular at any time of day, although on this occasion I resisted the urge to stop and take photos. The river Wye showed her sparkling beauty along the route, and I was not disappointed to have closed this route north.
Despite the distraction of the scenery however, I found myself starting to struggle. My energy was running low. I knew I needed food, more food than I was carrying. So I ate a flapjack, and messaged Del to ask for food to be waiting for me at Monmouth. I wasn’t due to stop next until Hereford, but I knew I needed sustenance before that. I was also aware that this section had a lot of elevation, but that I hadn’t actually done much yet….that meant that the proper hills were still to come, I couldn’t do those without a good energy hit.
I arrived in Monmouth, and found Del on the edge of town with sandwiches prepared for me. I scoffed half straight down, and being aware that I was around an hour behind schedule, took the other half with me so that I could be on my way. We topped up my bottles, and off I went. The rain had stopped and the sun was coming out again. It was turning into a lovely day, and I wanted to enjoy the calm before tomorrow’s storm. The LEJOG rider that had left me at Avonmouth popped up again, and suggested if we might be playing a game of tag all the way to John O’Groats, as this was the third time we had bumped into each other. This was however the last time I would see him again on the ride.
I was right to be wary of the lack of hills so far, as they came thick and fast after Monmouth. I joined the A49, put my head down and cracked on. The sandwich was the energy burst that I needed, and I found myself taking it all in my stride. The hills were enjoyable despite tiring me, the traffic was friendly and I was having a good day.
Route Woes No 1
Hereford came and went, I refuelled, and continued my voyage along the A49. My route had planned to stay on this road as much as possible, but take some more direct options when the opportunity arose. One such opportunity came after leaving Ludlow. My route turned off towards the racecourse, and I was met with a quieter, but beautiful road, that was wide, and flat. ‘This was a good call!’ I thought, as I picked up a nice pace and was able to enjoy the scenery rather than keep my eye on the traffic. It seemed like the advice to select some less busy alternative roads had been good advice. But as the miles rolled on, the road became narrower, and more winding. Gradually the road entered the Shropshire Hills and I really had to slow down, as the lovely wide road had reduced to a single lane, sometimes little wider than a track. Maybe alternative routes weren’t such a great idea after all. I passed farms, and even Llama’s along the way, but the ups and downs became very tiresome. No longer were the bumps smoothed out by an A road, these roads followed the contours of the land, and when you are in a hurry, they are very unwelcome. Let me make this clear though, if you are NOT trying to get a world record, this is absolutely the route to follow between Ludlow and Church Stretton as it’s beautiful.
Eventually at Church Stretton I popped back out onto the A49 and picked up my pace once again. I made a mental note though to not turn off on my way back and just stick to the main road. This scenic detour had cost me a lot of time. Looking at my stats I was barely managing 10mph on my detour, a long way from the 17-18 mph I had been hoping for.
As I approached Shrewsbury, the traffic began to slow and I could see emergency lights ahead. There had been some kind of accident, and traffic wasn’t being allowed through. As I got closer to the scene I saw an ambulance on a side road and a bike, complete with panniers leant up against a tree. My heart sank, not only because there had obviously been someone hurt, but also because of the realisation that here I was, riding on all the major roads, and at any time that could have been me. I also wondered whether if it was the other LEJOG rider that I had been chatting to earlier. Later I checked the local news, and couldn’t see anything relating to an accident involving a cyclist, so I assume that whoever the rider was, that he wasn’t seriously injured.
Del was waiting for me in the agreed location in Shrewsbury. Athough I had navigated my way directly to the meeting point, on a busy afternoon, the roads were tricky to follow.
I left Del instructions for another Adventure Food meal at our next control point near Warrington, and was soon back on my way. The hills were now mostly past me for the day, so I knew that in terms of terrain I was going to enjoy the next section. Undulations rather than big hills were ahead, and it was very much my preferred terrain when I’m in a hurry. A bit like Goldilocks, my feeling was “not too high, not too flat but just right”
The next section was to be the longest of the day at 56 miles, but with only 1903 ft of climbing, potentially one of the easiest. Once I had negotiated my way past yet another serious accident at Shrewsbury (this time a motorbike), the next few miles were uneventful, which was fine by me. I put my (bone conducting) headphones on, and as we headed towards the evening, settled into my rhythm finding a comfortable pace for the miles ahead. I was maybe a couple of hours behind schedule now, so was keen to push on and try to make up some time.
I was so happy to see other riders waiting to join me around Whitchurch. I apologise that I don’t remember everyone’s name, but conversation again on the road was very welcome. One of the riders gave me a badge with ‘SuperGirl’ on it, courtesy of his daughter who had been following my dot with her dad. In the end, it was her dad, Paul, who became one of my SuperHeroes later on in the ride. They rode all the way to my next stop with me at Warburton, and their presence certainly helped to keep me awake in the rapidly decreasing daylight.
Under the light of the silvery moon
It was dark when I left Warburton, via a small toll bridge. Del couldn’t follow my route through and had to find his own route to get back on track. I was no longer on the major A roads, but riding through quiet street lit urban areas was pleasant. It was a warm, dry evening and I was back in my happy place of night riding. I was pleased with the route, as it avoided any potentially busy parts of Manchester & Warrington as I headed further north. Riding through Leigh however, I felt that familiar bouncing coming from my wheel which could only mean one thing….yes, I had been visited by the P fairy. Spotting a pub up the road, with bright floodlights at the front, it was a perfect spot to settle myself and sort it out. I had only gone about 10 miles, so figured that Del wouldn’t be far away. I sent him a message telling him what had happened and where to find me as I set about repairing the puncture. It was one of my self repairing. ‘Slime’ tubes that had sprung a leak, and had decided it couldn’t be bothered to repair itself at all. A piece of wire had embedded itself in my tyre, and created a rather large hole in my tube, which proceeded to squirt green sticky goo all over me when I went to remove it. There was the inevitable interest from inebriated residents of the pub, but I managed to avoid too much conversation and offers of assistance, and got on with the (now messy) task at hand. Just as I popped my tyre back on, I heard the familiar sound of Dora’s engine & Del appeared armed with the track pump.
A Walk in the Woods
The puncture, whilst quickly fixed, was yet another delay I could have done without. I was still at least 40 miles away from my destination, and it was clear I was going to be way off schedule. I didn’t actually mind too much as I was enjoying the night riding, and was staying awake without too much trouble, helped by the streetlights. But shortly after this, things went badly wrong. It was quite possibly the worst routing error of the whole trip. I’m really not quite sure how I got it quite so badly wrong, but on both my mapping software, and also my Garmin maps, the cycle path that I was presented with didn’t seem that it would be too bad. After all, it was tarmac, and just looked like it cut the corner off, what could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot as it turned out. Once on the cycle path, there wasn’t really any obvious way off it. I assume it was an old railway line, as it was quite high up compared to the streets below. But all the time I was on a solid surface, and going in the right direction I stuck with it. Eventually the path opened out – to a canal. My route went over the canal, but there was no bridge, just a very narrow lock gate.
I carefully pushed my bike over the gate, and looked for an adjoining cycle path, or a way to a road…..any road. In the darkness there wasn’t anything obvious, apart from the steps I had to go down, and a kissing gate through which it seemed that the cycle path continued. My route followed the cycle path, and so through the kissing gate I went. I was beginning to feel rather annoyed with myself. I’m known for the occasional accidental adventure route, but this was neither the time nor the place to be playing around on canals. The cycle path became less solid, and more forest trail, and as I headed into the woods, it became more difficult to find my way. There were multiple paths, but as I was going so slowly by now, every time I stopped to check my route on the Garmin, my dynamo powered front light dimmed so that I couldn’t see the path ahead. I had to keep my bike moving in order to see, which was a challenge in itself. I wasn’t exactly lost in the woods, but I also wasn’t exactly where I thought I would be.
Eventually I popped back out on the main road, although I was slightly alarmed to find a shadowy lady at the entrance to the gates. To get this into perspective, by this time it was around midnight, and it was very dark, and in my mind, the middle of nowhere. Apparently she was waiting for me! She had been watching my dot, and thought I might like to see a friendly face when I left ‘The Plantations’ . I wasn’t actually in the middle of nowhere, I was in Wigan. I hadn’t a clue.
Lancaster or bust
Once back on the main road, I was keen to put as much distance between me and the Plantations as I could. I still had so far to go, and it was already the time that I had planned to be finishing. The roads were pretty good & completely free of traffic. With the gentle glow of streetlights, and upbeat music in my ears, I was happy again, despite being so far behind schedule. I was determined to make it to Lancaster, and so zoned out a little, with my head down, and arms on my aero bars.
As I approached Preston, there was another cyclist waiting at a junction. “ Hi, I’m Daniel. I’m so glad I didn’t miss you, I thought you were coming through here hours ago”. He had been at work and planned on riding with me through Preston when he finished work at 8, except his shift had changed to finish at midnight. He had checked the ‘dot’ before leaving work, assuming me to already be in Lancaster. But since I was nearby, he took a detour from work to meet me. His goal was to direct me through Preston and to save me from myself and yet more dodgy route planning. I told him my tales of woe from earlier, as he told me about himself, and his infamous ride that he hosts called ‘the Hell of the North West’. I was so grateful that I was saved from yet another adventure route through Preston, as we rode straight through the centre without a single vehicle in sight.
Once we were safely out the other side, Daniel headed off home, and I continued, wide awake, further north. I was so late when I spotted Paul waiting for me further along the route. We had always been due to ride together, although initially, the plan was to ride over Shap together on day 3. But, he had seen the weather forecast and decided he would do a night run with me instead, and guide me through to Lancaster and my hotel. It was great to see Paul, as we had met a few years ago when he lived in Portsmouth and rode in our social pub ride group. We chatted away, about what I don’t know. I think the number of hours in the saddle were starting to take their toll, and my brain was turning to mush. But I was glad of his company, and it meant I didn’t need to pay too much attention to my Garmin.
As we approached Lancaster, the first signs of rain were felt, changing to a steady drizzle by the time we reached my hotel at 3am. I said goodnight to Paul & found Dora in the car park. My room key safely stashed on the outside of the van, whilst Del was catching up on his sleep inside.
I had been on the road since 7am Monday, and it was now 3am on Tuesday. But I had ticked off 215 miles. It had been a long day, but would be a very short night. I captured my final thoughts before bed, the unedited video is included below.
I was not looking forward to Day 3 – Storm Francis was already knocking at the window before I finally fell asleep.